By Brian Truitt
In a year when drama seems to be draining out of a few top Oscar races - thanks, Argo and Mr. Lincoln - an underdog category is picking up the slack and poking its once-cartoonish snout into the adults' business.
Animated feature films, having shed some of their slapstick reputation by adopting more sophisticated themes and technology and a keener competitive spirit, are creating compelling storylines for Sunday night's Academy Awards (ABC, 8:30 ET/5:30 PT).
Put a lid on the sufferin' succotash antics of yesteryear. Instead, focus on the animated feature film category and see whether director Tim Burton - a revered presence in Hollywood's live-action world - will win his first-ever statuette, for his pet project Frankenweenie.
Or, will Pixar Studios pick up its seventh award, for Brave, which features its first-ever female protagonist, the headstrong redheaded archer Merida?
Could film academy voters actually prove themselves to be hip by anointing Disney's video-game-centered Wreck-It Ralph?
Looks like the stakes are getting more serious, even as animators still chase the brass ring of best picture as well as the respect of their live-action peers.
"Animation has always been considered the kids' table of film," says Brave director Mark Andrews. "I'm kind of torn. I love that it has its own category, but I think we can go up against live-action. Why is animation considered less?"
The stereotype that animation is all about talking animals is blown up by this year's five nominees, chosen from a field of 21 eligible films. They tackle heady material such as life and death - Burton'sFrankenweenie is a stop-motion ode to the friendship between a boy and his dog, who lives again after being electrified, Frankenstein-style. Brave finds Merida seeking freedom from her royal parents but also tackling a family curse. ParaNorman is a John Hughes-esque tale of a bunch of kids who have to save their town from the undead, while Wreck-It Ralph is the redemptive story of a video-game bad guy journeying to find his inner hero.
There is room for some lightheartedness, however, in the form of the very British The Pirates! Band of Misfits, about a buccaneer striving to be Pirate of the Year.
Pirates! director Peter Lord, for one, is excited about having any presence at the Oscars, which he considers "the high table of filmmaking."
Animation having its own Oscar is "the biggest thing in this business," says Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animations and Oscar winner for 2005'sWallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. "I've received more e-mails and tweets and Facebook likes and stuff around the nomination than around the release of the movie. It has a huge, huge impact on people."
While Argo seems to be running away with the award for best picture, the animation category - introduced at the 2002 ceremony, which saw Shrek take home the Oscar - has no clear front-runner, says Scott Feinberg, awards blogger for The Hollywood Reporter.
Academy voters he has talked to are most enthusiastic about either Ralph orParaNorman. "Ralph is the most fun of the group, and with all other things being relatively equal, that may be the difference," Feinberg says.
However, while Ralph won a Critics' Choice Award and an Annie Award for best feature, Brave nabbed a Golden Globe and a prize from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
But don't forget about the iconic director in the mix, says Tom O'Neil of GoldDerby.com. "Tim Burton's way overdue for an Oscar, and you might think here's the perfect opportunity for voters to reward him."
Burton, who was nominated for his 2005 stop-motion horror musical Corpse Bride, remembers the days before the animated Academy Award existed. When he was a Disney animator in the early 1980s, gone were the decades before of Walt Disney and his "Nine Old Men" crew rolling out classic after classic like Bambi, Dumbo andPeter Pan. During his stint, animation "was a dead medium."
"You recognize there was always a lot of talented people waiting for the opportunity to do it and it finally came. It surprised me more back then at how dormant it was for a while," Burton says.
The Little Mermaid in 1989, though, kicked off a resurgence for the company that two years later saw Beauty and the Beast garner the first-ever best-picture nod for an animated film. That, plus the coming of Pixar Studios in 1995 with Toy Story and a slate of well-made movies that entertained as well as tugged at the heartstrings, made it impossible for the academy to continue to ignore animation.
Lord jokes that he's still annoyed that the first Oscar for animated feature was given out the year after Aardman's popular Chicken Run - "I feel kind of cheated in a way," he says with a laugh - but his studio, in addition to the likes of DreamWorks, Laika (which did the stop-motion Coraline and ParaNorman) and others, stepped up everybody's game.
"That's why I was very happy to get a nomination this year," Lord says.
Adds Rich Moore, director of Wreck-It Ralph: "I look at what my colleagues are doing, and it makes me want to be a better filmmaker. It makes me want to be the best I can be."
And it seems Disney is coming around yet again. Frankenweenie and Ralph lead the way in the company's new mind-set, which gives the reins to filmmakers to let them make the movie they want and not make a "Disney movie," Moore says.
"To be helming a film that could potentially bring the award to Disney, which has never won, is profoundly humbling. Disney is a place that I've always rooted for, and I think the audience does also because we have a deep, deep love for what that means."
While Disney merged with Pixar in 2006, the latter is still an autonomous unit and one that can't rest on its laurels.
"We're not the only game in town anymore, which is good for us because now we have to kick it up and find that next new thing or where can we push our innovation. We know everybody else will follow," says Andrews, who has been with Pixar for 12 years and has worked on a couple of Oscar winners, as head of story on The Incredibles and story supervisor with Ratatouille.
That also means looking into possibly broadening the subject matter and moving past family-friendly material, he adds. "I would hate for some other studio to come out with the first PG-13 film that gets the best-picture nomination in live action and it's not us."
Before he made his mark in Hollywood with Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Batman andEdward Scissorhands, Burton created his original live-action Frankenweenie short in 1984 while he was still at Disney.
Live action is a frame-by-frame process, too, yet there's a connection Burton has to animation that he doesn't get otherwise.
"It's the tactile - people making the props and the puppets that are works of art in themselves and the skeletons and the movement you can get out of crude things that are amazing," Burton says. "Seeing inanimate objects coming to life goes back toFrankenstein or Pinocchio. There's something magical about the process of that in itself. It does make it a bit more special."
Andrews, who co-wrote John Carter of Mars with fellow Pixar vet Andrew Stanton and helped with directing duties, says both mediums call for the same artistic skills, although there is a big time commitment involved with animation. A live-action movie can finish principal photography in a matter of weeks - animated films often take years to complete.
ParaNorman writer and director Chris Butler can vouch for that: "You work on one of these things for four or five years. If it's just for an award at the end, you're probably wasting your time," he says.
Only three animated films have been nominated for Oscar's best picture: In addition to Beauty and the Beast, the Pixar films Up and Toy Story 3 both benefited from the recent expanded fields.
There are still purists in the academy who actively ignore animated films because they just don't belong in the same category as a Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook, Feinberg says. "I've literally heard voters use the word 'cartoon' dismissively.
"They just have in their minds a certain idea of what a best picture is. When it looked like animated movies were getting to the point where they might start cracking into that category, those who did not like that wanted to give them their own award as well," Feinberg says.
Adds Butler: "I do think a lot of people see animation as some colorful babysitting device rather than just a movie. They talk about it like it's its own thing. It shouldn't be. You should be able to use animation to tell any story."
But the academy has responded positively to Pixar's use of "pioneering technologies while never forgetting to include big old-fashioned heart," O'Neil says. "Up and Toy Story 3, those movies had those old geezer Oscar voters weeping in their seats and discovering their old vulnerable selves."
Wins by Rango, Wall-E and Up in recent animated races also have shown a certain turning of the corner, he adds. Animation is "not just for kids - it's for lizards, it's for robots and it's for old people."
Lord and Andrews both feel that an animated movie will one day win a best-picture honor.
"I know why it's unlikely, because Hollywood loves their stars and they love their stars to be visual as well as audible, and they love to have their stars on the red carpet,'' says Lord. "But in terms of smart filmmaking, I can very well imagine it."
And Andrews doesn't even think it will take a long time for it to happen.
"As soon as animation gets out of this G-rated funk and starts doing some fast-court press on bigger social issues and dramatic stories, it will arrive," he says. "We're not just at the kids' table. We can actually, using this medium, talk about things that are happening in the world and have unique insights."